UNITED NATIONS — France, Russia and China, the key opponents to using military action to disarm Iraq, said Wednesday that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's presentation to the U.N. Security Council failed to persuade them that war is yet necessary.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin spoke for several nations when he said that although it is clear that U.N. weapons inspections have fallen short in the face of Iraq's lack of cooperation, the answer is not war but better inspections. He proposed doubling or tripling the number of inspectors and placing full-time monitors in Iraq to keep tabs on suspect sites. "The use of force can only be a final recourse," he said.
Powell's presentation was designed to persuade not only the American public and an international audience watching on television but, most important, the veto-holding members of the Security Council, who will determine whether Saddam Hussein's regime should be disarmed by inspectors or by force.
France, China and Russia, along with the U.S. and Britain, hold veto power on the council. Though all 15 council members agreed that Iraq must show better cooperation "within days," they disagreed on when to say enough is enough.
For the U.S. and Britain, that day is coming soon. On Feb. 14, chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei will report again to the council on the progress of inspections and Iraqi cooperation after a trip this weekend to Baghdad.
The two men will demand quick and concrete cooperation from Hussein, Blix said Tuesday, but even they are not expecting Iraq to suddenly unearth caches of weapons. Barring such clear-cut evidence of compliance, the U.S. and Britain will soon ask the council to make a difficult choice.
"Time is now very short.... If noncooperation continues, this council must meet its responsibilities," said British Foreign Minister Jack Straw. "This is a moment of choice for Saddam and for the Iraqi regime. But it is also a moment of choice for this institution, the United Nations."
For now, the choice of the majority of the council is to let inspectors keep working, bolstered by the U.S. presentation of its evidence and offers of more equipment and monitors from Germany and Russia on Wednesday.
The foreign ministers of Russia and China said the presentation showed not that inspectors have failed, but that their job is all the more urgent if the U.S. evidence of Iraq's campaign of concealment is true. But both cautioned that it is up to the inspectors to decide when they have reached a dead end.
"As long as there is still the slightest hope for political settlement, we should exert our utmost effort to achieve that," said Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan.
Most foreign ministers spoke after Powell's speech from scripts prepared before his presentation, so it may take a few days of consultations at home for council members to express a change of opinion. But most countries reaffirmed their positions in those remarks.
Bulgaria and Spain, as expected, voiced support for the U.S.-British stance that Iraq must face military action if Baghdad doesn't drastically change its level of cooperation.
Germany, which has said it will not participate in military action, applauded France's proposal for more robust inspections and said the U.N. must not set a precedent of using war to maintain peace.
"Dear colleagues, in the world of the 21st century, the U.N. is key to conflict prevention, crisis management and peace-building," said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. "We need a tough regime of intensive inspections that can guarantee the full and lasting disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."
Only Chile seemed moved from the middle road by Powell's presentation.
"Attempts at partial compliance, at cooperating in a piecemeal way
Despite France's threat to veto a resolution calling for military action before inspectors have exhausted their efforts, De Villepin made several comments Wednesday that may edge the country closer to ultimate agreement with the U.S.
He acknowledged for the first time that French intelligence also indicates that Iraq has stocks of deadly VX nerve agent and botulinum toxins and possesses equipment for missiles that go beyond the 93-mile limit imposed by the U.N.
He also agreed that the inspections regime is inadequate and that Iraq is not fully cooperating. He did not rule out use of force but made clear that France's threshold for military action is much higher than that of the U.S. or Britain.
"If this path [of strengthened inspections] were to fail and take us into a dead end," he said, "then we rule out no option, including in the final analysis, the recourse to force, as we have said all along."
But De Villepin said the council must act together and only after considering how to limit the risks of military action, ensure the region's stability and protect Iraq's civilians and unity.